Jennifer Militello’s ‘Body Thesaurus’

by Abigail Lee

Body Thesaurus
by Jennifer Militello
Tupelo Press, $16.95, 72pp.

In a book with a scant handful of proper nouns, Jennifer Militello has chosen the internal landscape of the self—that treacherous and fertile country—as the setting for the gem-like poems that compose Body Thesaurus. They are gem-like in their concentration and their hardness; there are no platitudes or easy answers here. Militello sets out her project as defining the self by what it is not: “not a shadow of the self,” “not a symptom,” and “not a battery of tests.” But her poems do more than define the negative space around the nebulous creation that we all live in and live by. She fills her poems—each one a sort of “body”—with a dense, lyric longing, and a female voice that is confident even in the face of the illness that confronts the body and thus the self.

In the title poem the speaker addresses a “you,” a sort of ur-beloved that runs throughout the book. She ends the poem: “As a mind,/ your body is a wall of leaves; let its edges whisper/a collage of liquids singing, lips, the sangria weeds.” These “edges” read as the very heart of these poems. They are the places where the self and the body blend, the places where the body and the world bleed into each other—a wound, or a mouth. Her poems are filled with dusk, with sky, with sutures and blood. The poems themselves walk this edge between clarity and confusion, between the spoken and the unspoken. In “The Unspeakable, Said,” Militello writes, “How to stand among its branches and not feel broken,” and later, “The white edge of death begins burning down:// my word a small word on a small white page./ My wrist’s opal river has spilled from the sleeve.” The speaker’s words and their embodiment in her white wrist are the conditional answer to the earlier question (or is it a statement?)—how not to “feel broken.” Militello sutures the self with small words, drawing it together while refusing to ignore the confusing and “un-selfing” that lies wait for all of us in illness and death.

While these poems are the inner songs of the intriguing and elusive speaker, their capaciousness—including hemlock, marigolds, a menacing menagerie of animals, God, pumpkins, and paper cranes—Militello explodes open the self, making her speaker both a maze of internality and the source of the whole natural world. And this is only appropriate, as the poet shows us: the small “bodies” of each of these poems cannot contain the lyric force of the speaker-self, who echoes in the mind long after the pages are closed, questioning and praising the mystery that it is to be alive.